NFL Replacement Referees: Why Anti-Unionists Don't Have to Favor NFL in Lockout

Peter BukowskiSenior Analyst ISeptember 26, 2012

Replacement referees botch hail mary call costing Green Bay the game
Replacement referees botch hail mary call costing Green Bay the gameOtto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Sports make people go a little crazy. The term "fan" is derived from "fanatic," and the term is as apropos now as it was when it was coined.

So when I saw Packer fans, having just seen their team absolutely screwed by the NFL replacement referees, defending the NFL's stance on busting the unions, I was a little confused.

Apparently, some people's political fanaticism outreaches even their sports fandom.

It was noted by Kevin Blackistone, among other sports media, that the stance Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan were talking on replacement referees was incoherent given their stances on unions.

In other words, Walker and Ryan are purported to hate unions, so how can they tell the NFL to let the refs go back to work?

Without getting too political, these cognitive dissonances can be explained.

The heart of most anti-union stances is that the free market is out to determine the value of the work we do. Competition creates values in the marketplace and thus standards for pay and benefits are created.

Unions gave us the five-day workweek and a slew of other workers' rights laws in this country simply because the negative market forces weren't strong enough to push back companies who didn't treat employees fairly.

In the NFL's world, a multi-billion dollar business is being desecrated because the league won't give up the idea that part-time employees who already make in excess of $100,000 annually shouldn't be getting better retirement benefits than full-time league employees. 

The rest of the world has 401K's, so why should the refs get a defined benefit pension?

Or at least that's how the argument for the NFL goes.

Gov. Walker and Rep. Ryan, as well as conservatives like them, have attempted to bust unions (or at least are in favor of doing so) because of how it affects businesses.

Usually, we're talking about assembly-line and factory workers striking to get better pay or benefits. In the case of Walker, collective bargaining had caused Wisconsin to fall into a massive budget hole.

It was actually Walker's stance that, in order to prevent teachers and other public employees from being fired, they take a pay cut in salary and benefits.

Wisconsin's budget was balanced and thousands of public employees got to keep their jobs, even if many of them took cuts around 10% of take-home salary.

This wasn't about "busting" a union so much as it was about regaining financial control of their government.

Blackistone's comparison to the NFL is a non sequitur because the NFL is holding out, not because it can't afford to pay the referees (it can), but because it doesn't want to.

Roger Goodell and the NFL owners are of the mind, or at least were of the mind, that NFL referees weren't worth it.

Their value should be dictated by the marketplace. If I can go get another ref to do your job, you aren't worth as much as you think you are. In other words, those assembly line workers are eminently replaceable. 

They don't have tremendous value to their companies, which is why their salaries and benefits are so low.

It's the free market at work.

But free marketeers ought to have recognized, by now, that the referees have proven their value. The boss hired a bunch of new guys to do the job and they're embarrassing the business, not to mention themselves.

We now know that an NFL referee is an integral part of maintaining order and decency for the NFL brand.

Giving a referee a pension when full-time league employees don't get them may just be a function of the marketplace.

In this case, it appears that is might be what is happening.

That means those anti-union politicians (most of them are not truly anti-union, but rather anti-public employee union, and believe you shouldn't be forced into joining a union), and free-market conservatives who dislike unions, should see that the market is working here.

Fans are threatening to turn away, and the players, the NFL's most precious commodity, are threatening to take action.

This is more of the free market at work, and the NFL ought to heed its call.